Iceland's forests: back from the millennial oblivion

For hundreds of years much of Iceland has been a wind-swept, barren landscape stripped bare of trees by Viking boat building, the need for fire wood and the arrival of sheep on the island. Now, after over a millennium the return of Iceland's forests is gaining ground.

Hallormsstaður forest - Photo Austurland.is
Hallormsstaður seen from lake Lagarfljót - Photo Christoph L. Hess/Wikipedia SA By 3.0

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We took the road from Egilsstaðir out onto what felt, at least by Southern English standards, like a vast and empty valley plain flanked by hills on either side. The Lagarfljót river ran along the westward side of the valley on our right, before expanding into a lake. Edging the road, what had begun as occasional patches of small birch interspersed with larch, pine, and spruce, gradually thickened into more substantial clumps and then a continuous line of wooded cover. It was March, and Iceland’s best known forest Hallormsstaður, snow and ice frozen to its branches, was not exactly in full bloom; but what was missing in bud, leaf and canopy was balanced by the novelty of this long straggly stretch of woodland existing at all. This was icy Iceland after all, the island country with one of the lowest tree-covers in all of Europe. 

Soon enough we were out of the wood which, if you believe the regional tourism literature, extends over nearly 750 hectares. Birch dominates, with around 350 hectares devoted to it, while further across another 200 hectares, hardier species grow.

Volunteers – Icelandic Forest Service

Not quite a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment, though blink five times in rapid succession, and you might wonder if the rumours of woods were anything other than an Icelandic tree hugger’s rather vivid imagination! For centuries Iceland has been a treeless land, a feature which on the one hand adds to the barren grandeur of its landscape, and on the other, has been a slow-motion environmental disaster gathering pace through the centuries. However, this wasn’t always the case.  When the first Viking’s landed in 874, they set foot on a forested island, with great swaths of woodland, reaching skywards in many parts of its more sheltered valleys and leeward nooks. In, those birch woodlands disappeared into Viking adventures, materials for their boats and buildings, and fires for cooking and warmth in this cold part of the planet, but mostly to clear land for livestock grazing. It was, in effect, a medieval forerunner of what today is being played out across the Amazon, and indeed deforestation across the planet. Indeed, nine tenths of the country was already bare by 1100. And when the sheep arrived, they happily chewed away at any surviving tree roots and other available vegetation over the subsequent centuries. Without trees vegetation and soil cover has been literally blown to the winds. Research estimates that there was vegetation covering two thirds of the country when the Vikings arrived. Today this is only a quarter of the total 103,000 square kilometre landmass. The result is that the deforested, barren land which at once exerts such a powerful hold on both Icelander’s and visitor’s imaginations, is at the same time the source of what is considered Iceland’s most pressing environmental challenge: the loss of healthy soil and consequent desertification. Stabilising the soil and improving its strength and quality, has become – though only recently, in the last half dozen years - the core mission of the country’s Soil Conservation Service (SCS), with the installation of trees the most effective approach to long term binding and stabilisation.


Screen grab -  the Euforgenmini documentary Afforesting Iceland – a cause for optimism

Along with the Icelandic Forest Service (IFS), the SCS is also involved in tree planting. In most places soil preparation and planting happen together. But where sandy soil isn’t stable enough the land is prepared to ensure it is healthy enough for tree seeds to take root, grow and survive for the approximate ten to twenty years needed before they are hardy enough to self-seed and left to spread themselves. The partnership between these two organisations is new and has only really begun to get underway in recent years. The long haul nature of the work is brought home, when one considers that, although tree planting increased from a single million in the 1980’s to 3 million in the 1990’s and early 2000’, and reaching 4 to 6 million seedlings in 2007-8, the total of wood covered land remains a mere 1.9% of the land area.

These record-breaking figures collapsed during the aftermath of Iceland’s 2008/2009 economic crash; the afforestation budget was slashed in half, and grants to farmers completely closed down with increased funding only re-introduced in 2016.

Volunteers – Icelandic Forest Service

In 2019, however, the current Government launched the most ambitious afforestation programme yet seen in Iceland. The spur being that Climate Change and the Paris Accord targets have, with the arrival of a green prime minister, begun at last to be regarded more seriously; with sequestration of CO2 through afforestation, as well as wetland reclamation, and soil regeneration as one leg in a two-part strategy; the other being the electrification of transport, and more specifically, private vehicles. After consultation with the main bodies responsible – the IFS and SCS - the Ministry for the Environment agreed a final version in early 2019; and Iceland’s Climate Change Plan, providing a road map to Carbon Neutrality by 2040, was launched by the prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdóttir in July 2020.

The five-year plan provides 100 million Icelandic Króna (about 730 000 euros) for the first year, with a commitment for budgetary increases over the five-year period: (2019-2024) four million trees are to be planted in 2020 the IFS’s website proudly announces. There has been a raft of initiatives over the last fifty years, but the scale of this latest plan, given the gathering climate storm, and ignoring the inconvenient fact that Iceland’s 16 tonnes carbon footprint makes the country Europe’s most prolific carbon emitter, comes not a moment too soon. The approach is two-fold; an increase in grants for farms and other landowners first, and secondly, the IFS and SCS leading on more focused afforestation projects, primarily on eroded land.

The figures seem insignificant beside Iceland’s total land cover: 103, 000 km2, and the 40, 000 km2, which, could, according to the IFS, be reforested. However,  compared to the past, the ambition of the programme is at a different level.

The Iceland Forest Service's tree nursery – Photo screen grab -  the Euforgenmini documentary Afforesting Iceland – a cause for optimism

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A few hours before passing through Hallormsstaður, I visited the IFS headquarters in the comparatively leafy town of Egilsstaðir, capital of Eastern Iceland, and talked for a couple of hours to its director, Þröstur Eysteinsson. This was in 2016, the moment when the new beginnings in afforestation, were just becoming visible on the funding horizon. Fast forward one general election plus five years, and the subject of forests and afforestation had once again returned to the political agenda. This all seemed interesting, and I arranged to talk with Eysteinsson again, this time over the phone.

“What has changed,” said Eysteinsson, “is the will to make the effort. That’s what’s made the difference.” While Iceland’s political parties - (bar the populist Centrist Party which pursues a Climate Denial agenda), today accept the reality of Climate Change, and the need to act. Without the arrival of the Left-Green’s in the coalition Government, it seems much less likely to have become a viable idea. “If it wasn’t for the Greens it might not have happened,” says Eysteinsson. Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, the minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, who comes from an environmental science background, and was head of one of the country’s main environmental NGO’s Landvernd, (the Icelandic Environment Association), is also praised. “At last we have someone who understands,” says one administrator.

Icelandic afforestation project - E.Hermanowicz/EFI

The afforestation programme also doubles down on Iceland’s most pressing environmental challenge: soil erosion and desertification. ‘‘Planting trees’ says Árni Bragason, the director of the SCS, during a phone interview, “is one of best ways to build up the soil and fix the carbon in it. That’s our aim, simply stabilise the land and prepare it for trees.”

Sheep grazing, according to Bragason, continues to deplete the land big time, particularly in the Mid Atlantic Belt, a large volcanically active strip of the country, running from south west to north east, the length of the central Highlands. “The most vulnerable land cover is a mixture of totally barren land, where all soil has completely disappeared, to land with a mixture of basic soil and sand, where the vegetation gets thinner and thinner and is very vulnerable. When you have such a situation, rather than thick grass, it is simply very good for erosion; - a perfect storm.”

Not all farmers agree that there is a problem. “It has become a problem to get farmers to accept it as a problem. We have good co-operation with many, though we don’t see the goose through the same eyes. Some say the land is okay and is getting better each year.”

In parts of the country it is a contested arena, fought over by local town councils and farmers. Elsewhere the SCS is co-operating with farms and farmers and, working with the Seed Farmers Association and the Farmers Association, have fenced off 250,00 hectares from unprotected overgrazing. Each year, according to Bragason, another 18,000 hectares is added, making the land resilient enough to continue to be grazed.

A view of Hekla volcano, and right, small birch trees growing after afforestation near to Hekla
– Photo - Sigurjón Halldórsson/Quora article

The largest of the IFS-SCS joint projects is in the Mid Atlantic Belt, around one of Iceland’s best-known volcanoes, Hekla. Here seedlings are being planted across 90, 000 hectares of sandy low-grade land, 1% of Iceland’s land mass. Other similar projects are considerably smaller, between 1000 and 10, 000 hectares, together totalling less than the Hekla initiative. Smaller grant-based afforestation projects are being provided for farmers on land which is better and where the soil quality is also higher. As an extension of the already existing programme, the IFS have been working with many of these farms, the grants providing the opportunity to expand their woodland plantations: “There’s been a waiting list, because of the reduced funding after the economic crash.” Eysteinsson notes that these farms are larger than many mainland ones in Europe, averaging 1100 hectares. Additional afforestation is usually about 80 to 100 hectares, which will be planted with 2,500 seedlings per hectare. Because of the number of farms involved, this project comprises about two thirds of all afforestation in Iceland.

He acknowledges a swelling shift in public opinion accepting Global Warming, led by personal experience and exposure to the effects of Climate Change. “The situation gets more serious with every report from the IPCC. We see these things ourselves - … the last ten years there’s been the melting glaciers. I’ve seen glaciers myself recede more than 200 metres; and there have been huge changes in fish stock.” One knock-on consequence has been a surge in interest in woodland planting.  “Because of all the hype, many people have applied.” But it seems that seedling sales have outstripped availability; and although seedlings are planted in the ground and growing them on has increased, there are not enough being produced in nurseries, which have been hit by the recession, all the smaller concerns going out of business.

The Iceland Forest Service’s tree nursery – Photo screen grab
-  the Euforgenmini documentary Afforesting Iceland
– a cause for optimism

As Eysteinsson notes, the funding injection is only playing catch up on the post-crash cuts, with the first years’ budget already cut by 10%. However, forested and wooded land has, it is confidently stated, doubled, and may have quadrupled since 1950.  The first decade in contemporary afforestion - despite the return of forestry elsewhere, can be traced back to 1907 Forestry Act – passed by a single vote in the Icelandic Parliament. And in the years and decades since, through natural regeneration the native Birch has spread to cover an estimated 1500 km. The fifties were an experimental time: non-native species were planted; Scots pine and Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, larch and Norway spruce, some of which grew well, others less so. Tree nurseries were also founded, growing through the next decades. The IFS established its first research station, opened in 1967, in Mógilsá, with a current staff of ten.

Vaglaskógur in Fnjóskadalur, North Iceland
– Photo Skogarpesi/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0

Although Hallormsstaður is the best known of them, there are other forests dotted around the country. One of the oldest is Vaglaskógur in Fnjóskadalur, North Iceland east of Akureyri. One of two areas in the country with small birch forests, it was established and fenced by the IFS’s predecessor early in the twentieth century; allowing what is now a 300 hectare birch and spruce forest to spread and establish itself. And in the far north east the Ásbyrgi canyon, forty miles from Husavik, there is a second forest that has been completely reseeded in the last hundred years. Due to unusual geographical conditions it is particularly sheltered, allowing a birch, rowan and a variety of conifer forest to establish itself, alongside wild meadow flowers to bloom in the summer. Much further south is Þórsmörk (Thorsmork or ‘Þór´s Wood’), a deeply forested valley between the Krossá, Þrönga and Markarfljót rivers and close to the Mýrdalsjökull glacier about 100 miles south east Reykjavík close to the beginnings of the Southern Highlands, and also Skógarfoss (waterfall forest) at Skógar close to Skógarfoss waterfall.

Where woodland has taken root, none of the trees, the Birch, Rowan, Spruce, and Siberian Larch are not exactly the largest, hardiest, or strongest. But several non-native species regularly reach over 20 metres in height, and black cottonwood trees stand at 26 metres, and Sitka Spruce 29 metres. Eynsteinsson speculates that by the time both species have been around for a century each could be growing upwards of 30 or 50m.

Icelandic birch - Photo: Pétur Halldórsson/Skogur

The increase in wooded land across the country, though small, has seen the potential for forestry begin to open up. Icelandic forests stand at the cusp of becoming a viable source of timber. “I am very optimistic about the growth of forestry in Iceland” Eysteinsson exclaims. “Forestry is one of the winners in climate change.” At present nearly all of harvested timber ends up as biomass, and firewood. It can be used in various building materials, but quality and size questions render it uncompetitive, compared to other Nordic imported timber until we get to the final felling stage.   Small businesses producing fuelwood, bedding for livestock, chips and sawn wood are already in existence and utilization of the forest resource will only grow with time.

Historically small amounts of timber were commonly used as building materials; birch being traditional for roof rafters, indicating wealth and generally the presence of the Christian church’s influence. The size of the tree determined a walls breadth; so that where Icelandic birch grew to 4 or 5 metres this would be the breadth of the building. Likewise, 10 to 12m long trunks, resulted in buildings with walls reflecting the birches growth.

When I met with him in 2016, Eynsteinsson enthused about an old Norse pagan temple, which “the Pagan community were hoping to build entirely out of Icelandic wood.” Unfortunately, this enterprise had stalled because funding had run out, but not before a big hole and concrete slab foundations had been laid. Though small, it was an indication that wood as a construction material, was being looked at again.

Europe’s engineered timber revolution has also reached Reykjavik; a few timber buildings have gone up, using imported Norwegian engineered timber for some three-storey housing there. Interest and enthusiasm for timber buildings, and the locked-up carbon they represent, is on the increase, even if these are all but invisible in a concrete dominated building market. “We want to create wooden buildings which locks in the carbon; and are promoting the idea of timber buildings even if the wood is imported, as it creates a market which is what we want.”

This small ripple of activity extends further, an advance sketch of how things may grow, with Eysteinsson talking as if the future has just got nearer; “we’re now preparing for lumber production in the middle of the century, rather than sometime next century.” By which time lumber mills will have become feasible to run. “We are building the resource, which eventually will be used to produce lumber. We need sawmills which are big enough to be economically viable. At present the resource is not big enough.”

Cowlam! – Structural glulam used on the Flatey á Mýrum cow shed designed by Gláma•Kím Arkitektar and manufactured in Iceland by Límtré Virnet
Right - Bjorn Steinar Blumenstein's indigenous furniture

One timber and steel processing factory, Límtré Virnet, is manufacturing Glulam posts and beams, the wood again imported from Norway, and are involved in trials and testing of four different home grown species of wood. If these prove successful, both indigenous glulam, and potentially – the interior unexposed – sections of CLT panels could be manufactured in the country. The Reykjavik based Arkis Architects used native spruce for the first in their road rest stop projects while the young sustainability designer, Bjorn Steinar Blumenstein, has set up a furniture design operation using exclusively locally sourced timbers. These are the upsides and potential.

All these are extremely small first steps. Overwhelmingly the low-grade biomass heads south to one of the new silicon smelters, where it is used as a carbon source. That is a good use for wood from thinning of young forests, which is usually of low quality and only suitable for chipping.

Rest and relaxation facilities under Dynjandi waterfall – project by Arkis

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How far the prospect of these renewed indigenous resources will be realised is going to become clearer over the next years and decades, not least in relation to the effects and consequences of a warming planet. The impacts are being felt in Iceland, as elsewhere, in particularly specific ways. In every year since 2003 – bar a wash-out 2018 summer – the summers have been becoming longer with a mean 12°C temperature in July, up from 11°C the median average only 25 years ago. Winters too are getting milder and warmer. Spring begins earlier, and autumn starts later. April, May, and October are becoming part of the growing season, for the first time in living memory. “September is much milder, and almost – but not quite frost free. I grow potatoes, and they are never damaged before October. That’s new.”

Some tree species are becoming increasingly stressed by the warmer weather, particularly Siberian Larch, which as an inland species, triggered by the milder, warmer climate, begin its spring growth cycle and breaks bud too early, only to be damaged by later frosts. With the lowlands no longer consistently cold enough in winter for dormancy, Siberian Larch planting in the lowlands has already stopped. In place, a more adaptable, flexible, and more ‘maritime’ larch, used to more moist conditions, found in Western Russia, from across the Archangel and Karelian Finland borderlands, is being imported.

Black Cottonwood Poplar - Nordic Forest Research

Pests are on the increase, one unwelcome result of the freight container revolution. More and more insects are appearing, including ones which effect native birch, causing defoliation and loss of resilience. There are concerns that they are becoming more susceptible.  Time lags between climate today and the climate when a tree is fully grown are also a major challenge. Eysteinsson points out they cannot use tree species which will be fully prepared to prosper in warmer climates as the seedlings have to be adapted to the conditions at the time of the planting. “The mortality is greatest in seedlings. So, we can’t project into the future and can’t really plant for the future.” What is likely is that more and more trees will become adapted as summers get longer, with the main species, mostly lodgepole pine, Sitka spruce and black cottonwood to begin with, but likely including Douglas fir and a variety of European species such as oaks and beech. Whether mixed forests will become more common, given the emphasis on productive conifers, against the prospective biodiversity benefits is an open question.

Still, something completely encouraging has been quietly happening, the first act and first century in the return of Iceland’s forests after more than a millennium. 2021 is here and the second 21st century act is beginning to be played out. After only a thousand years, if the Government and the powers that be continue to increase support, come mid-century the once mighty Viking forests may well and truly be on their way back.

Screen Grab -  the Euforgenmini documentary Afforesting Iceland – a cause for optimism